What I’ve Learned About Playing Music Alone – Pro’s and Con’s

Young beginner students love to play in ensembles of all sizes ranging from duets with their BFFs to full size concert bands to marching bands.

First there is safety in numbers. You are one of many. Others cover up your squeaks and clinkers. If you do make a mistake, act innocent and you can always blame it on someone else. Second, it’s a social event where you are surrounded by friends. When you are in middle or high school it’s a wonderful experience until you try to play in tune and no one matches your pitch.

Most students reach a certain level and are content playing in garage bands while others settle for town bands performing in park gazebos for the rest of their lives.

A funny thing happens though when you take music more seriously. The better you get, the more annoying the others become! Intonation and dynamics are ignored concepts that are two of my biggest pet peeves. Mostly because they become non-existent. If you are like me, you will be presented with a dilemma, should you go solo.

As a solo act are you really playing live music? What are the pro’s and con’s of playing music alone?

Professionally, let’s take a rock or jazz band made up of a drummer, a bass player, keyboards, lead and solo guitars, and a singer. At this level one of the biggest assets beyond talent is their creativity and shared energy which has to be experienced to understand and can feel extremely good.

Is it ok to add string sounds? If you said yes you just eliminated the need for actual violinists. I guess in this case certain live musicians aren’t necessary. Hmmmm! Next we can replace the drummer with a drum machine. I personally love and hate live drummers. Some were solid and creative and truly exciting to work with, while others couldn’t maintain a steady beat if they lives depended on it and can be an absolute annoyance. So where do we draw the line? Is this still live music?

About ten years ago, I found myself whittled down to a “Live” duo with an excellent keyboard player with all the bells and whistles built into his high end toy. Already other musicians were starting to whine and give us grief (though in a playful way.) Unfortunately, after five years my buddy moved away leaving me high and dry!

Well low and behold, the universe sent me a cute and extremely talented singer with laptop back-ups. Needless to say, I jumped on the opportunity to learn how to use a new tool. Don’t get me wrong, she had a new technique, but I came to the table with experience, my own performing skills, and gig connections.

A year later I became a solo act with a new format in my arsenal. Within two months I did my first solo gig. I knew I was on to something big. The first song I played was a song I was previously told was lousy. 30 seconds into the song, a twenty year old walked by me with a lilt in his step while saying “Awesome man!” Little did I know that “that was only the beginning!”. I was a sideman most of my professional life and had to be content being told what and when to play. Now I was my own boss calling the shots. (No one telling me I made poor choices and offering questionable options.) Of course if anything did go wrong, everyone knew who to blame. If the music was out of tune……it was me! If the melody came in too early or late……it was me! If the intonation was bad, you get the picture……it was me! So I made sure I was totally prepared.

From there I just kept adding to my repertoire of eclectic songs ranging from old Frank Sinatra standards to the Beatles of the 60’s to Soul from the 70’s to Classics of the 80’s sprinkled with songs to present day. Let’s face it, it’s difficult to find a band that can play in multiple genres, at least in my neck of the woods. Playing music alone made me very versatile to play funk, smooth jazz, reggae, sambas, and even polkas if necessary.

When it comes to learning a new song (this is sweet), I can play it over and over dozens of times until I am satisfied. Good luck getting a rehearsal band to do that!

Many songs have three, four, or even five verses. Here’s the cool part. Since there were no words to hold the listener’s interest, while I’m playing the first two verses I start hearing fresh and creative ideas in my head which I would apply in the later verses for variety then return to the head the last time for balance. It was always difficult for me to just jump in without a running start. By the time I felt a groove it was time for me to bow out and stop playing. Since I entered a new realm of performing solo, I found that I’m practicing more intensely. I now realize I am able to pursue my true passion and can feel myself growing emotionally. Many might find that difficult to comprehend, but it works for me.

Playing music alone is like a sanctuary. Even when I’m having a bad day, all have to do is work on my music. As the expression goes “calgon take me away” and it does!

The only thing is I get frustrated with people that think what I do is effortless and easy to do. I guess that is my true intent. Occasionally a friend of equal musical stature whom I highly respect will give me a sincere compliment as opposed a drunk at a party giving me the same accolades. But in the end, it’s all worth it.

Finally, is my solo with computer back-up live music or not? You be the judge!